Fire may have destroyed their church, but it couldn’t touch the spirit of members of St. Ann in Effingham
by Joe Bollig
EFFINGHAM — For those who lived in and around this small town, the steeple of St. Ann Church here stood as a friendly sentinel over their lives. Whether Catholic or not, they knew that when the 111-year-old steeple came into view, they were home.
But it won’t stand for much longer.
During the early morning hours of April 21, a fire raged through the church. Now, only the stained, sagging walls remain — and the steeple. The steeple alone — with its bell inside and cross on top — did not burn only because of the strenuous efforts of volunteer firefighters.
Three days after the fire, Walt Wohletz was in the parish center watching his wife, the parish organist, dust a donated electric piano that will be used in the temporary worship space.
“We’re hoping we can keep the steeple for the new church,” he said. “That’s a landmark. When you saw that, you knew you were in Effingham.”
That isn’t going to happen.
Engineers who have inspected the steeple have determined that the weakened structure could only be saved with an expensive project. That leaves salvage of the bell and steeple cross — still a difficult proposition, according to Shannon McPherson, vice president of McPherson Wrecking, Inc., of Grantville.
“You have a 120-foot bell tower with not a lot supporting it,” said McPherson as he stood outside the church and watched his workmen erect a fence around the charred structure.
The pastor, Father Benjamin Tremmel, OSB, stood with McPherson and discussed the condition of the church while the fence went up. This is the first time the Benedictine priest has had to deal with a church fire. In fact, this is his first parish.
Father Benjamin is a scientist who spent most of his years in ministry teaching biolo- gy at Benedictine College in Atchison. But the parish needed a priest, so in 2002 Abbot Barnabas Senecal asked him to take on his very first pastoral assignment.
Father Benjamin’s bucolic parish life ended when a firefighter rousted him out of bed before dawn.
An Atchison County sheriff’s deputy had been patrolling the town when he noticed a fire in the window of the northwest corner of the sacristy.
“He called it in at 3:17 a.m.,” said Father Benjamin. “Obviously, it had been burning for some time.”
When Father Benjamin looked at the church, he didn’t see a fire, but that was because the windows inside had a thick coating of ash. Thick black smoke, however, was boiling out of vents near the peak of the roof.
Once the fire broke through to the outside air, it spread quickly. Approximately 100 firefighters from eight area fire departments fought the inferno. Pumpers made continuous runs to farm ponds to replenish three steel-framed canvas reservoirs used in battling the blaze. So much water was used by firefighters, in fact, that school had to be cancelled that Monday.
The smoke, noise and flames woke the whole town the morning of the fire. Everyone came by at some point to witness the death of their old friend.
“They were all here,” said Father Benjamin. “People didn’t stay for hours, because they had to go to work. There was a young woman, who lives in Topeka now, who was supposed to get married here on May 3. She and her fiancé came up, and she was just weeping.”
Fortunately, she was able to shift the wedding to St. Joseph Parish in Nortonville.
The Kansas state fire marshal, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Atchison County Sheriff’s Department are investigating the fire.
Investigators have told Father Benjamin that their preliminary findings have ruled out any electrical source of the blaze. No trace of an accelerant has been detected, but arson has not been ruled out. There have been two arson incidents in the community recently.
The fire started in the sanctuary, in an open space between the altar and the sanctuary wall, where two statues rested upon wall-mounted supports, above seven-day vigil candles.
No damage was inflicted on the parish hall, north of the church. Some vinyl siding on the rectory, south of the church, was warped by the heat and will have to be replaced.
Everything inside the church was destroyed. Items taken from the ashes and debris include half of the tabernacle door, bits of three chalices, a badly damaged ciborium, and a couple of melted candlesticks and candelabra.
Since the fire, parishioners have been scrambling to find ways to carry on the work of the parish while absorbing both the physical and the emotional loss.
Father Benjamin and parishioners set up a temporary chapel in the parish hall. He’s using a borrowed Sacramentary and Lectionary. For daily Mass, he’s using his own ordination chalice, which he kept in the rectory. An older tabernacle, which had been kept in a parish hall closet for Holy Thursday, has been set up off to one side. Daily Mass is celebrated on an old folding altar, loaned to the church by St. Joseph Parish in Wathena.
In front of the pulpit was a small table holding an arrangement of white roses — a gift of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Topeka, which was damaged by an arson fire in 2006.
Community support has been very strong, said Gene Hegarty, chairman of the parish finance council.
“When you have a small community like Effingham, something like this touches everyone,” he said. “[Non-Catholics] hurt just as much as we do. Our annual church picnic is a community affair, and everyone comes. I’d venture to say that at the prayer service the day after the fire, half of the people there were non-Catholic. It was packed.”
Father Benjamin estimated that 400 people attended the prayer service, which is remarkable considering the town has a population of about 580. Two Protestant ministers from Effingham churches participated, and several other ministers from the area were present. One of the co-presiding ministers was a volunteer firefighter who helped wake up Father Benjamin the morning of the fire.
“We had a big loss, but there’s also hope and the desire to go forward,” said Father Benjamin. “We’re not so sad that we’re giving up. In a way, there’s joy because of the tremendous support people are giving.”
People in Effingham aren’t the type to linger over their misfortune, said Hegarty. Parishioners have been asking the same question over and over: What can I do to help?
People outside the community want to help, too, he said, but the joint parish and finance council hasn’t determined needs yet. First on the list is getting bids within the week to raze the fire-ravaged shell.
One thing is certain: They will rebuild.
“Everything we’ve done is to that end,” said Hegarty. “We see no reason at all not to rebuild. It’s just expected that that’s what we’re going to do.”